Review: Doctor Who – Hell Bent (Series 9 Episode 12)

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Ah, now this is going to be a doozy. I’ve recently reviewed both Face the Raven and Heaven Sent for Peter Capaldi News, so it seems only fitting that I follow it up with the conclusion to the Doctor Who Series 9 finale. Funnily enough though, Hell Bent somehow manages to feel like one of the most standalone conclusions we’ve had in a modern Doctor Who series, with a far more intimate story at its heart in spite of its climactic and bombastic setting.

I won’t lie – after the episode originally aired in December last year, I came away with mixed feelings. Generally positive feelings, mind, but still mixed. And I wasn’t alone, as Hell Bent appears to be the Doctor Who equivalent of Marmite – some absolutely love it, some absolutely despise it, and some just can’t get their heads around what on earth it’s trying to accomplish. At the time at least, a lot of the negativity was a result of the BBC’s own marketing, depicting the story in trailers as an all-out Gallifreyan war with The Doctor absolutely wrecking the place up on his long-awaited return home. In truth, however, that’s merely the backdrop to Clara Oswald’s final farewell, a character that had been presumed dead and gone two episodes prior. The first twenty minutes are exactly what you’d expect, as Peter Capaldi squares off against Rassilon and the Time Lords in the dry lands (more on that later), but afterwards the episode takes a sharp twist in tone to focus on The Doctor, his companion, and the end of their journey together. When you don’t know it’s coming – and certainly if you’re not a big Clara fan – it’s bound to leave you disappointed, but after several repeat viewings and the foreknowledge of what Hell Bent is setting out to achieve… dare I say, this might actually be my favourite Doctor Who finale to date.

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It’s worth saying it right off the bat – I’m a big advocate of The Twelfth Doctor and Clara as a Doctor/companion partnership, so the real emotional core of Hell Bent is something that especially resonated with me. Their relationship has developed wonderfully over the last two series, and this is a perfect coda to an enthralling story. Jenna Coleman may have originally been due to leave in Death in Heaven and/or Last Christmas, but I’m incredibly glad she stayed on for an extra year so that Clara’s departure could be given the justice it deserves. The highlight of Series 9 has undoubtedly been Peter and Jenna’s blossoming friendship both on and off the screen, and it really feels like this goodbye is just as gut-wrenching for the actors as it is for the characters.

From a structural standpoint, Hell Bent is quite an unconventional finale – all of the concluding episodes in previous series have involved The Doctor facing off against a hugely powerful enemy force, whether it be Daleks, Cybermen, The Master, Davros, The Silence, The Great Intelligence… (you get the idea). Here, however, the threat is The Doctor. You could argue that the Time Lords are the big bad, but honestly, they don’t do anything nearly worthy enough to be considered a threat. Rassilon is given the boot less than half of the way into the story, and all the General does afterwards is chase The Doctor around the Cloisters, trying to talk him out of whatever he’s doing. Sure, it’s not the all-guns-blazing showdown that we all might have liked to see, but it’s a refreshing change of pace to have a series that doesn’t end with someone trying to tear time and space apart. Alright, well, it does, but The Doctor is doing it for a nice reason, so it makes it okay. Right?

Following the extraordinary Heaven Sent and the jaw-dropping cliffhanger which saw The Doctor arriving back on Gallifrey for the first time in the modern series, things kick off… in Nevada, USA? Admittedly it’s a little jarring at first, but it’s all just a set up for Hell Bent’s unique form of storytelling. The guitar-wielding Doctor finds himself in an American diner, complete with Foxes’ cover of “Don’t Stop Me Now” playing on the radio, and he’s greeted by a very familiar looking face. As he picks out Murray Gold’s “Clara” theme to pay for his supper, the waitress asks The Doctor to recount the story of the woman behind the song – and off to Gallifrey we go…

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Peter Capaldi’s performance in the first act of this episode is, as in Heaven Sent, phenomenal. Even more phenomenal when you consider that he doesn’t actually have any lines until the moment he tells Rassilon to get off his planet. It’s a Western-style stand-off with some great direction from Rachel Talalay, and it’s a satisfying climax to all of The Doctor’s torment in the previous story. However, once The Doctor overthrows the Lord President and takes command of Gallifrey for himself (clearly being President of Earth isn’t enough any more), things shift gear dramatically and it’s at this point you’ll instantly know whether you’re on board for the remaining 40 minutes or not. The Doctor saves Clara from Trap Street using an Extraction Chamber, effectively undoing the ending to Face the Raven, and together they go on the run in a bid to escape the (laughably non-existent) Time Lord threat. Some have argued that The Doctor shooting the General is a step too far, but the entire point of this episode is to show The Doctor unhinged and going against all of his morals – and let’s face it, if you’d been trapped in a torture chamber for four and a half billion years, you’d want to let off a bit of frustration too! If nothing else, it provides a decent excuse for a race and gender swapping regeneration, a progressive change that can only do the series good in the long run.

There’s definitely flaws with the story itself: in addition to the Time Lords being little more than mooks, Ohila is a fairly superfluous addition who only reinforces how poorly Gallifrey’s return is explained (The Doctor suggests that it’s been unfrozen and returned to the normal universe, but how and why are left open-ended). In fact, the fan-service notch feels like it’s turned up just a little bit too high at times – the references to the four knocks and reversing the polarity are nice if unnecessary nods, and the inclusion of the Dalek/Cybermen/Weeping Angels in the Cloisters doesn’t add anything either (although, for the record, I actually didn’t mind how they were handled here, at least in comparison to some of their gratuitous appearances in other Steven Moffat episodes… I’m looking at you, Time of the Doctor!). But, ultimately, it’s all just window dressing and if you can look past some questionable decisions then there’s a beautiful tale lying underneath.

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Long story short: it’s The Doctor and Clara (and by extension, Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman) that make this episode. While it’s not explicitly confirmed (even if it is heavily implied), the resolution that The Doctor and Clara form the Hybrid together is a compelling one, fitting in with the events of the episode and giving a valid reason for why the two have to part ways. Their ultimate farewell – a flip of the coin on who gets their memory erased by the neural block – at first appears to be a carbon copy re-run of Donna’s exit from Series 4, but there’s a welcome sting in the tail when it’s The Doctor who bites the bullet instead. Suddenly, the entire premise clicks into place – the waitress in the diner really is Clara, not one of her fragmented echoes as previously speculated, and she’s trying to get The Doctor to remember her. I think it’s wise that The Doctor still manages to retain some of his memories (presumably due to the neural block being designed for smaller human minds) as it spares him from mourning and it means that Clara’s impact on his life has not been for nought – and let’s face it, she’s done an awful lot for the ol’ Time Lord since joining in Series 7. The American diner setting, which initially appeared a bit of a random choice, also comes into play when The Doctor thinks he remembers being there with Clara – only to realise that, no, it was actually Amy and Rory instead. The look on Clara’s face when The Doctor doesn’t recognise her is absolutely heartbreaking, and it’s agonising to see them so close to reuniting yet so very, very clearly at their point of no return. There’s a real irony in Clara constantly telling The Doctor to “run you clever boy, and remember me” – and in the end, he completely forgets her.

Despite this, it’s a happy (if bittersweet) ending. Clara, now effectively immortal, comes full circle by all but becoming The Doctor and getting to fly off in her own TARDIS with Ashildr/Me in search of exciting new adventures. The Doctor, meanwhile, gets his own TARDIS back and triumphantly sets off with brand new sonic screwdriver in hand. Everyone’s a winner! Sort of. Cleverly, Steven Moffat has left us with the best of both worlds – Clara still has to go back to Trap Street and meet her fate eventually, so technically Face the Raven is still just as valid a send-off for her as Hell Bent is. Ultimately, it’s a case of Schrödinger’s Clara – she is both dead and alive, depending on your perspective, and if nothing else it leaves the door open for her return in spin-off media, or perhaps even a cameo when The Twelfth Doctor inevitably regenerates.

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To sum up then: Hell Bent is a smaller-scale, more romantic finale than the ones we have become accustomed to in previous years – but, in my opinion at least, it’s all the better for it. Does it live up to the lofty heights of its immediate predecessor, Heaven Sent? No. Of course it doesn’t. But then again, what does?! It’s best to think of Hell Bent as the second half of a two-parter in story terms alone, because for all intents and purposes it’s its own thing, and that’s an episode which serves as a beautifully touching send-off for Jenna Coleman and Clara Oswald. Lovingly, it turns the page on an unforgettable chapter of the show, leaving The Doctor (and us) looking ahead towards whatever the future has in store.

Series 9, it’s been a pleasure.

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